We’ve blogged here before about the issue of racial discrimination in the stop-and-frisk policing practice in New York City. There is lots of data that shows stop-and-frisk is discriminatory, harmful to communities and is not effective at “getting guns off the streets,” as is frequently claimed by advocates of the policing strategy. And, it’s very likely unconstitutional.
Bill diBlasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, has promised to end stop-and-frisk and that means there is a new future ahead for the city and the communities most affected by this policy.
In an effort to assess where we are with stop-and-frisk, what the data shows, and how scholars, activists and journalists have worked to change this policy, JustPublics@365, a project of the Ford Foundation based at the CUNY-Graduate Center (and that I lead), recently curated a series on this topic. And now, that series has been compiled as an all-in-one guide to stop-and-frisk (pdf)
The Information Guide is structured around three levels of social justice outcomes:
- Make Your Issues Their Interest: Raising Awareness About An Issue with an Audience
- Make Your Issue Their Issue: Getting an Audience More Deeply Engaged in An Issue
- Make Your Issue Their Action: Moving an Audience Towards a Specific Action
If you are teaching a class or training people in your organization, you can also use this Information Guide as a tool for teaching and learning about stop-and-frisk.
You can download the guide(pdf) and reuse it for teaching, research, activism or media.
“Rare indeed is the Asian American who has not heard an aunt or grandmother say something like; ‘Don’t go out in the sun. You’ll get too dark’…[Asian countries have] had long-standing preferences for light skin, especially in women.”
In my continuing research examining the lives of young multiracial Asian children, it has become pretty clear pretty quick that colorism (skin color discrimination of individuals falling within the same racial group) is a major theme. This isn’t a surprise to me, a multiracial Asian woman who grew up constantly scrutinized and measured as more European looking against other Asian peoples. I launched an Amazon hunt and as usual, found very little. In fact almost nothing; only one book addressing colorism in the Asian American community: Is Lighter Better? Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans by Joanne L. Rondilla and Paul Spickard (2007) (if you know of more, please send to me).
According to Rondilla & Spickard, colorism in Asia is less about wanting to look European and more a class imperative. “To be light is to be rich, for dark skin comes from working outside in the sun…the yearning to be light is a desire to look like rich Asians, not like Whites” (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007, p.4). A preference for light-skinned beauty existed long before serious encounters with Europeans and Americans, and this desire deeply persists. Though not visibly common in the US, skin lightening products are loudly advertised and mass-consumed all over Asia. And sales are rising. Two million units of skin lightening soap are sold annually in the Philippines. Today, every major cosmetics company has some form of skin lightener (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007).
So what happens when huge numbers of Asian immigrants (430,000 in 2010) and students (6 in 10 international students are from Asia) start arriving Stateside and their colorist/class values meet US racism which has aggressively devalued and violently oppressed dark-skinned people for hundreds of years? What happens when White Perfect (above) meets Jim Crow? “Less yellowish” meets Yellow Peril?
On the one hand, it’s a complicated catch-22. Overlay the former with the latter and we certainly get a compounded but also confused effect. As Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin note in their book The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, “Asian Americans frequently embrace stereotypes created by whites about other groups, as well as the racist notions that whites have created for Asians” (p.138).
Asian Americans often manifest “old world” inspired, “new world” enhanced colorism at the same time they find themselves victimized by the same system; targeted as people of color. Rock and a hard place, right? Take for instance American born Lucy Liu, still one of the few Asian TV and film stars, who has publicly bemoaned racism in Hollywood yet stirred controversy last year when she let slip a disparaging remark about Filipino skin color on Jay Leno.
On the other hand, the oppression of dark-skinned people, whether in Asia or America, is exactly what it is — the oppression of dark-skinned people. I often run into folks who try to differentiate the two histories of discrimination as totally disparate, unrelated and incompatible things. Sometimes to excuse immigrant colorist behaviors as eccentric or somehow less offensive because they technically aren’t rooted in racism. Sometimes to dismiss the possibility of any compounded and damaging internalized effects to Asian American children through their combination. But in our increasingly interdependent world, how can we pretend the cultural values of one continent are not influenced and impacted by the values of the other? When I was a young girl my father told me if I ever married a Black man he’d disown me. Even that young I remember being totally shocked by his unapologetic and vocal bias, something I continued to live with and object to my entire youth (though my protests always seemed to fall on deaf ears). My father was born and raised in Taiwan, a place that was and still mostly remains pretty Asian-homogenous. He immigrated to the United States when he was in his 20s at which point he’d had very little exposure to any kind of Black be it African, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, African American, whatever. Yet despite his limited exposure to racial diversity growing up and the fact he himself was often targeted as an immigrant/person of color later living in the US, as an adult he harbored very extreme American prejudices against historically targeted American racial groups.
Chou & Feagin point out Asian immigrants often have preconceived stereotypes about Blacks before they even immigrate because of contact with American mainstream media operating overseas, a major source of negative typecasting for Mexican and African Americans (among others) (Chou & Feagin, 2010):
The impact of U.S. racism is not confined to the borders of the United States. Indeed, U.S. economic, political, military, and mass media power makes the country very important, indeed often dominant, in many global settings. The United States not only exports commercial goods but also propagates important ideals and ideas as well. The U.S. media are very influential and perpetuate important aspects of the white racial frame to many countries around the world. Certain U.S.-oriented products and their advertising also spread a U.S. racial framing (Chou & Feagin, 2010, pp.170-171).
Where does this leave multiracial Asian Americans born into these overlapping frameworks? I’m afraid that as multiracial Asian Americans, this leaves us poised very precariously at times. Despite what you might imagine, with the recent influx of Asian immigration and Asians marrying out of their ethnic group at a higher rate than any other racial group, multiracial Asian children are not actually that far removed from “old world” prejudices and are often second generation Americans like myself. I have been constantly scanned for Asian versus white features by Asian immigrants and proclaimed “the best of both worlds” leaving me with the uncomfortable, highly racialized feeling there’s something I did or didn’t get that I should be glad about but that one or both of my halves might resent. In my October post “Mixed Heritage and Knowing We Still Have Work To Do,” I described the race challenges shared by a quarter Asian youth panelist (Black/Asian/white) as part of a local mixed heritage dialogue. Despite identifying strongly as Blasian:
12 yo Saiyana, a child of our future and proud of her mixed heritage, showed us that race mythologies/oppressions persist. She related being profiled by a museum security guard who identified her as Black at the same time Black peers at school refuse to acknowledge her multiraciality.
Even in Rondilla & Spickard’s well-researched book something funny around mixed race people seems to be happening. In their study, they asked participants asked to respond to pictures of 3 different women of varying skin tones from lightest to darkest. The “fairest of them all,” as designated by the researchers, appears to be multiracial, something alluded to, but not confirmed in the book. The other two do not appear to be multiracial.
Why would only one woman be mixed race? Why not choose either 3 mixed race Asian woman OR 3 monoracial Asian women? And if only one mixed race woman was going to be chosen, why would she be the light one?
There is a conversation we aren’t having about specifically colorism in Asian America and the way it impacts the lives of mixed race children. For example, how are darker-skinned Black/Asians versus lighter-skinned white/Asians received within their families, within the Asian American community, and society at large?
In her book Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants, Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain points out that despite growing acceptance of mixed race children in the Japanese American community:
The idea of racial hierarchies perpetuated by the Japanese American community is evidenced in the community beauty pageants. There have been few if any African American/Japanese American mixed-race queen candidates and none has been successfully chosen to be queen (King-O’Riain, 2006, p.38).
How do phenotype and issues of blood quantum complicate this conversation? What is it like for children like Saiyana who are a quarter or less Asian and may not wear Asian racial markers that signal loudly to others, yet who identify strongly as being so? Given that multiracial Asian is a fast-growing demographic and will soon constitute a larger and larger portion of our population, I think we have to ask ourselves these hard questions. Certainly not at the exclusion of other discussions central to multiraciality but definitely as an important part of the larger conversation.
What is it like for multiracial Asians with different skin colors/heritages sitting at a crossroads where “old world” Asian colorism and “new world” US racism meet?
~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes regularly at MultiAsian Families.
There is an amazing series airing on PBS this fall, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The documentary series is produced and narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and made possible, in part, by JustFilms of the Ford Foundation, The Hutchins Family Foundation, as well as corporate sponsors. I mention the sponsorship at the top because you can see how the deep-pocketed funding pays off in this well-crafted, beautifully told, and thoroughly researched series.
The episodes include a wide sweep of just over 400 years of history, beginning with The Black Atlantic (1500-1800), The Age of Slavery (1800-1860), Into the Fire (1861-1896), and the most recent, Making a Way Out of No Way (1897-1940). Still to come are Rise! (1940-1968), and It’s Nation Time (1968-2013).
Each episode blends Gates’ avuncular narration and interviews with leading scholars and experts on African American culture with solid scholarship and a compelling visual style. These are also travelogues as we follow Gates re-tracing the steps of the African diaspora, across the Atlantic, to the American south, and then North and West through the great migration.
The tone of the series is on emphasizing the rather profound resilience, innovation, and resourcefulness of the African American people. Yet, it simultaneously takes an unflinching look at the centuries of white oppression that changes shape over time but remains a brutal, nefarious, and life-threatening constant. In my view, it strikes just the right balance between these two, always emphasizing how African American folks were able to “make a way out of no way,” while never pulling any punches about the unrelenting nastiness of white racism and the cruelty of institutional oppression.
(More Famous Quote Posters from PBS)
There are so many people in the US – the overwhelming majority, I think it’s safe to say – who do not know this history. To our great, collective shame this history is not part of the K-12 curriculum, and most adults will only learn it if they choose to take a “Black History” class in college. My hope is that this remarkable series might be incorporated into more curricula, as it was clearly designed to do.
“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.
If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.
It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.
But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.
On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.
Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.
This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.
The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.
The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.
Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.
Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.
Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.
Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.
Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.
What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.
Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.
This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.
These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.
(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)
While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.
Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.
If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.
Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.
Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.
~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.
Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.
Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”
Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.
The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.
For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.
These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.
And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.
Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.
In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.
She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.
The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.
Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.
In need of a house? Affordable housing? Detroit has an abundance of housing with prices unimaginable to most Americans. You can purchase a large spacious home for as low as $100 or less in the underprivileged areas that span for many square miles throughout the city. You might lack public services ordinarily taken for granted in most places, such as police services and street lights. There has been such a surplus of vacant properties that Detroit’s been burning them down. In 2010 there was an estimate of 70,000 burned houses which does not include vacant buildings and those numbers continue to rise with each passing year. Where else in the world would homes that might be considered the picturesque of “the American Dream” be regularly set on fire despite the fact that this nation has its fair share of people who are homeless and/or in dire need of housing?
Devil’s Night in Detroit is when the most fires are set and typically begins on October 30th and runs through the 31st. People from other communities and states travel into the city to join forces with the local residents to help with their local adopt home and other property efforts against arson, as well as bolster local medical, safety, and first response services. In this light, the evening has been redefined as, “Angel’s Night.”
During the early 20th century, Detroit, “The Motor City,” was a growing industrialized city and predominately white prior to the 1920’s. In fleeing the Jim Crow of the south, Blacks began to migrate into the Detroit area during the late 1920’s on through the 70’s only to find they were equally unwelcome. Often met with violent racial hostility by the existing residents and police brutality, social exclusion from employment coupled with housing segregation, Blacks were blocked from equally participating in white society. With the deep seated feelings of entitlement, the settled whites who were already competing with each other for existing opportunities and resources in the Detroit area channeled much of their venomous fears and frustrations onto the Black communities who, like they, were seeking better lives.
The systemic racial issues bottled up coupled with rise of the Civil Rights Movements gave rise to race riots of the 60’s throughout the nation bringing down the racial apartheid. Detroit had the largest riots in the nation resulting in the enactment of Marshall Law on three different occasions. As the apartheid was being dismantled a Black middle class began to emerge where shortly after, the city fell into rapid economic decline. In direct response to desegregation, white flight took hold resulting in resegregation with the nation’s wealth and privileges being concentrated into the predominately white suburbs and higher social classes throughout the nation. In 1950 Detroit’s population peaked with 1,849,568 and declined to 713,777 in 2010. Rather than integrate, much of white society chose to abandon their business and residential property.
Nothing exemplifies white privilege more than with the abandoned properties throughout Detroit. Most of us are required to properly dispose of our unwanted belongings. Black Detroit residents are the primary beneficiaries of these major social problems and toxic environmental issues. In 2010, the population of Detroit was 82.7% Black and 10.6% white with the State of Michigan having 14.2% Black and 78.9% white populations with black inmates representing 55% of the total prison population. Detroit is the poorest city in the nation with 1 in 3 residents living in poverty and many others living near poverty. There are still some very wealthy residents in Detroit, but they live in segregation on the outskirts of the city.
Detroit has the highest murder and missing person rates. These issues may play some role in the highest arson rates as well. As noted by the Detroit fire fighters above, to some degree vandalism has been the culprit, but there are a combination of reasons ranging from desperation where residents set fires to polluted houses that have been abandoned with rotting trash or that pose other social and environmental threats (vigilante fires) to sometimes revenge. Arson is a mechanism the residents have resorted to as a means to correct their immediate problems since the city either will not, or cannot.
But further, some locals believe that the general public is deliberately misled on the level of arson carried out by the residents as some of the power holders of the city are believed to be financially vested with local demolition contractors. It is cheaper to remove burned down houses than those fully intact. This destruction is a form of social expression from abandoned and socially neglected voices. It is revolt as Feagin and Hahn (1973) outlined in their earlier work on Detroit riots, to the many forms of racism that have championed the abuse and neglect of Black communities throughout history on into current times. With the effects of deindustrialization compounded with ongoing blocked legitimate means of survival and societal abandonment, it is no wonder the thousands upon thousands of houses representing the very icon of the American Dream have been set on fire many times over. What American Dream?
As October comes to a close each year, Americans seem to happily traipse around in costumes that flaunt the most racist stereotypes. So, what’s up with racism and Halloween?
In case you’ve missed some of the recent documentation of American racism at Halloween, Ebony Magazine has a wonderfully awful slideshow showcasing 10 of the Most Racist Halloween Costumes. Perhaps the most egregiously racist and just plain callous of these are the blackface Trayvon Martin costumes shared on social media:
(Image source: New York Daily News)
Halloween marks All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day (Nov.1), a holy day on the Christian calendar for remembering the dead. According to many scholars, Halloween is a Christianized feast with pagan roots. Early American settler colonialists, the Puritans of New England, were strongly opposed to celebrating Halloween, as it was seen as devil worship (a harbinger to today’s Hell Houses created by evangelical Christians). The holiday came to the U.S. via Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century and it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the 20th century (Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002). In the contemporary U.S., Halloween bears t is no longer a solemn remembrance of the dead, but a bacchanalian night of revelry that features a high volume of racist costumes.
If you’re going to dress up for Halloween and are still trying to decide what to wear, there are several guidelines available online about how to avoid wearing a racist costume, or tell if your costume is racist, or find the ways you’re wrong about your racist costume.
Still, even with these handy guides available, white people seem to keep getting this wrong. Terribly wrong. Case in point, minor celebrity Julianne Hough showed up at a Halloween party in prison jumpsuit and blackface as a character from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black:
(Image source: Cosmo)
For her part, Hough took to Twitter to apologize, in a "I'm sorry if you're offended," non-apology kinda way:
"I am a huge fan of the show Orange Is The New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."
Hough's costume and non-apology are just the kind of thing that Jamilah Lemieux is referring to in her piece at Ebony in which she suggests that white folks actually don't care that their Halloween costumes are racist.
There are plenty of excuses for racist Halloween costumes, but not knowing about the history of blackface can no longer be one of them thanks to this excellent Brief History of Blackface Just in Time for Halloween, by Prof. Blair L. M. Kelley. Her account is worth quoting here:
Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.
Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars. Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.
(Image source: Wikipedia)
The fact that every year at Halloween, there is a return to these centuries-old racist imagery says something about our society. Lorraine Berry observes that the the "romp" and "drunkenness" (either on candy or alcohol) that mark the holiday speaks to our inability as a culture to acknowledge death in a straightforward manner.
From where I sit, the American Halloween marks an annual display and celebration of the racist roots of this society.
[The following analysis was sent to us by an experienced academic administrator.]
A Los Angeles Times article published on October 18, 2013 notes that an independent investigative report conducted at UCLA found instances of overt and covert racism involving minority faculty members. This information was gathered by an investigative review team appointed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Scott L. Waugh, under the direction of Chancellor Gene Block and involves findings from interviews with eighteen faculty members in individual interviews as well from ten written statements submitted after a Town Hall meeting. The external review team consisted of a panel of experts including former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, UCLA Professor emeritus Gary Nash, Bob Suzuki, former President of Cal Poly Pomona, Dr. Maga Jackson-Triche, former UC Davis Professor, and attorney Constance Rice.
The findings of the report include the identification of conflict involving a racial component in two UCLA departments, two reports of egregious incidents of bias experienced by UCLA faculty members, and three reports of perceived bias in hiring, advancement, and retention.
The academic department is the cultural environment that shapes how minority and women faculty are supported and welcomed, the way conflicts are resolved, and how power is distributed. The department chair sets the tone in the academic department, but the makeup of faculty in a given setting, such as the predominance of long-serving tenured faculty, also impacts the departmental dynamic.
Case in point, the study highlights allegations of systematic exclusion of minority and female faculty in what is called “Department A” that ranged from telling junior faculty of color that they would not attain tenure, to discriminatory remarks such as “I thought Asian women were supposed to be submissive.” A white faculty member who was tenured and subsequently left the department indicated that he had spoken out against such conduct, been retaliated against by the department chair through a recommendation against a merit increase in pay, and he then retired rather than continue in that atmosphere.
In “Department B” two faculty members alleged that the department was divided along racial lines, indicating that they had experienced incidents of bias or discrimination by other faculty members, including senior faculty. One faculty member indicated what he perceived to be a clique of Caucasian male professor who ran the department, and said he had personally witnessed senior faculty use racially or ethnically insensitive language.
Incidents of racism noted in the panel’s findings include the report of a Latino faculty member in the health sciences, who indicated that shortly after his hire as a fully tenured faculty member, a senior faculty member in his department, upon encountering him for the first time in the hallway, asked in a loud voice in front of a group of students “What is that fucking spic doing here?” When the Latino faculty member reported it to his assistant dean, the assistant dean, although sympathetic, advised him against going to the dean since it would cause more trouble. The Latino faculty member feels threatened by the senior faculty member, and also believes that the individual left a screwdriver in his mailbox in 2010.
The majority of incidents identified to the reviewers involved process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement, and retention. Faculty members believed that they were denied advancement due to bias and discrimination, usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and a negative departmental vote.
Recommendations for action in the report include the need for: 1) adequate training of UCLA employees, including faculty, on what constitutes biased or discriminatory behavior; 2) review of UCLA’s policies and procedures for clarity in how to report incidents of perceived discrimination and the subsequent investigative process; and 3) a centralized Discrimination Officer to address incidents of alleged bias, discrimination, and intolerance. The Discrimination Officer would have independent authority to conduct fact-finding investigations as a core responsibility of the office, would plan education and training, and ensure appropriate followup and recordkeeping. In essence, the Discrimination Officer would create the needed infrastructure to address informal and formal complaints and implement proactive and preventative measures to address forms of covert and overt discrimination.
The UCLA report highlights the importance of a framework of structural components that support an inclusive environment within the decentralized organizational environment of university departments. Recent research on academic departments finds a high degree of variability in the climate and interactions within academic departments that can be strongly influenced by the leadership of the dean and department chair.
Given the decentralized structure of universities with varying micro-climates and cultures, the experiences of women and minorities within departments can reflect very different realities depending on how power is operationalized through leadership, demographic makeup of the department, and intradepartmental interactions. The steps UCLA is taking are important by not only calling attention to the persistence of forms of subtle and covert discrimination, but also in creating the clear and unequivocal leadership expectation for an inclusive work climate throughout the university that supports the progress and contributions of diverse faculty and staff.
Did you know there’s a national exhibit that’s been traveling the US since 2007 entitled RACE: Are We So Different by the American Anthropological Association (AAA)? When I heard about it my thinking went something like this, “Oh good. A credible entity getting behind race discourse. Oh no. Why are they asking if race really makes us that different?”
[Source: Exhibit at Museum of Man - discovers.com]
As a multiracial woman often scrutinized for being “ethnically ambiguous” my experience of race is of something absolutely differentiating at the same time I find myself constantly butting up against people who deny its salience. So I felt invalidated then worried that an exhibit choosing to lead with the question, “Are we so different?” might prove unhelpful. Studies have found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts they (a) rarely changed their minds, (b) often became even more strongly set in their beliefs , and (c) did so without recognizing how their own desires influenced them. We live in an era when undoing racism means battling avoidance, denial and the inability to understand another point of view. If people see what they want to see, might a national science exhibit questioning the salience of race run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the colorblind ideologies that plague us today? Here’s what I mean…
As I first entered the exhibit at Seattle’s Science Center, a panel entitled Race Off offered me this, “There is no biological evidence that supports racial categories…What are we? The answer is simple – human.” This is something I run into a lot in my research and has become a trigger for me as a multiracial woman and mother. Check out what trailblazing scholar Maria P. P. Root has to say about this kind of language when it comes to our children:
If a child brings up a racial incident at school and meets with an abstract response from her parents, such as, “We’re all members of the human race,” “Race doesn’t matter,” or “We all bleed the same color,” the child gets no help from these pat answers and will be unequipped to deal with hazing, name calling, racial attacks, or other bullying…most children do not want to be confronted by their parent’s lack of competence in an area in which they need a role model (Maria P. P. Root as cited in Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2003. Print.).
134 Brazilian Alternatives
I believe to demonstrate how arbitrary our concept of race can be, a panel against the East wall pointed out that Brazilians don’t identify racially in the same way Americans do. Instead, Brazilians align with a multitude of skin-shades rather than a handful of prescribed races. To illustrate the point, the panel gives an impressive list of 134 “Brazilian Terms for Skin Color.” While I was standing there wondering if this was being presented as a solution to our problems, two white women stepped up and admiringly commented, “Wow! This is amazing. We should do this here.” Now there is certainly a point to be made about the importance of discussing skin color but this long list, while different, does not mean Brazil has transcended issues of race. In fact quite the opposite – a reality the panel only lightly alludes to. Brazil, a nation to which 4.9 million African slaves were shipped during the slave trade (versus 400,000 to the US), struggles greatly with its own form of racism/colorism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and did nothing to turn former slaves into citizens. According to their 2010 Census, the income of whites was slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians and more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black compared to just 7% in richer districts. Sound familiar?
Who Gets to be “Mixed”?
Wrapping up my visit I found myself in a corner dedicated specifically to Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. Fulbeck’s work has been incredibly influential in defining the multiracial experience and bringing visibility to a very underrepresented demographic. But I got the uncomfortable feeling RACE was trying to use it as a voicebox for how all mixed race peoples choose to face questions of racial identity today.
I became alarmed. Why? Because choosing to be recognized as mixed race in America is still not something all multiracial people get to do. We must always remember our insidious history of oppressing especially mixed-race Blacks and Natives for holding a few drops of said blood (e.g. shutting them out of white and its associated privileges, relegating them instead to “lesser” categories of color). And this legacy persists. Do mixed Black children want or even get to identify as multiracial now? Case in point, our very own mixed race President Obama (who is “half” white) checked “Black” as his race on the 2010 Census. Any discussion of mixed-race identity needs to include a conversation about how this idea exists differently across racial lines. I immediately hunted down the exhibit’s content expert and asked if they had a panel explicitly featuring an exploration of the “One Drop Rule” and issues of blood quantum as a juxtaposition to the Kip Fulbeck corner. Guess what the answer was.
Now before I bring the full wrath of the AAA and America’s science museums down upon me let me say there is a lot this exhibit does well. But while RACE is incredibly researched and offers important information we should all know, it ultimately struggles to reconcile its driving science-based theme that we aren’t so different with a very strong demonstration that we definitely are. And this is where the exhibit did itself a great disservice. By trying to remain neutral on a completely non-neutral issue it not only left itself vulnerable to racial messaging but also positioned itself precisely in the danger zone; a place where the race-matters camp finds plenty of fuel for their fire, but the colorblind-postracial camp does too. And everybody leaves the room possibly having discussed nothing and gotten nowhere.
~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.
Black Americans and other Americans of color have endured many hardships ever since twenty Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. For 85% percent of our nation’s existence, white-imposed systems of oppression via slavery and Jim Crow “separate but equal” were the bloody and violent norm. Since that time, the persistence of racial discrimination has remained a routine part of their everyday experience. Black folk have worked very hard on a steady path of social mobility through group uplift and self-determination against overwhelming odds. In this milieu of racist deprivation, some black Americans have managed to find economic, political and other forms of success against the hegemonic countervailing forces of white institutional racism and all of its permutations that thwart black life as we know it. This systemic inequality has an impact on more than class position. It influences human biology and physiology at the cellular level, leaving the bodies of the poor, the impoverished, and the targeted more vulnerable to chronic disease.
Epigenetics is the science of how the external environment affects us at the molecular level by altering gene expression and function that can, in turn, be heritable. It refers to chemical modifications or “tags” that mark specific genes around the intricate DNA complex. These modifications can alter gene expression influencing our biology and function. Think of a tag as a volume control knob that signals the gene to turn up or down its programmed function. Our genes listen for cues from the environment such as the food we eat, the kind of milieus where we live and work, the circumstances of our birth, and the race and class-based interactions we share with one another. These factors, in part, determine how our genes respond in ways that expose more vulnerable populations to disease.
Human wars, famines, droughts, plagues, physical and emotional abuse, and other forms of social deprivation not only leave their mark on society in harmful ways, but they also reek havoc deep within the cells of our bodies. The cells react to stressors in the larger social structure at crucial developmental times in the womb that have an influence on human health later in adult life, leaving us more sensitive to our environment and susceptible to disease. The longitudinal Dutch Famine Birth Cohort study that began shortly after World War II in 1945 captures the complexity of environmental factors on our genes. The study analyzed the long-term physical and emotional effects in children who were exposed to maternal malnutrition in the fetal environment. They found that poor nutrition leads to epigenetic changes in gene regulation of the fetus and its developing biological systems, which predisposes cells to certain diseases of slow accumulation that include obesity, kidney disease, lung problems, cardiac disease, breast cancer, and a host of additional physical and mental health disorders.
In epidemiology and other closely related social science disciplines, it has been well established that social class position is inversely linked to poor health. Further, it is well known that health status follows a social gradient with class-based differences in disease frequencies that mirror society. African Americans are constantly relegated to the margins of society where there are continuously exposed to the mundane effects of white-imposed discrimination. Within this space, many African Americans endure daily hassles and sustained assaults for just being black. These micro-aggressions can have negative health-related consequences for their mental, emotional and physical well being by epigenetically-altering the expression of certain cells that control for important bodily functions. Research over the last four decades has mounted strong evidence that race-based mistreatment on the basis of physical characteristics (i.e., hair, bone, lips, skin color, eye shape, etc.) takes a heavy toll on black people not only at the social, political and economic levels of society, but also at the physiological level where cortisol, the body’s “fight or flight” hormone, is seen at elevated levels in African Americans. DNA and its sequencing is genetically programmed to perform functions of the body such as this very stress response. However, biological processes that regulate these functions can be epigenetically altered to increase the physiological stress response in the body at a rate higher and longer than what is normal. This, in turn, can influence the normal function of a cluster of differing cells that regulate blood pressure, kidney function, and cardiac function. Scientists can now investigate these epigenetic modifications on cells induced by the environment such as in the Dutch famine example.
The science of epigenetics is unlocking significant clues as to how racial discrimination can induce changes to the expression of certain genes linked to biological development and the existence of disease. These epigenetic changes can linger for a lifetime and can potentially be transmitted to offspring. Because black Americans and their forbears have endured over 20 generations of white-imposed race-related inequities in every major sector in society, including persistent race-based discrimination in housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and the prison industrial complex, they carry a higher burden of disease. Health and disease are no longer purely infectious in nature, but instead, social and environmental factors account for most chronic disease. It is a function of the dynamic interaction between our genes and the larger society, and epigenetics is providing deeper understanding as to how our genes operate in these situations.
African Americans and their descendants have paid an exorbitantly high price for living in an unequal society in a number of reprehensible ways through the practice of forced labor, high incarceration rates, frequent under/unemployment and low educational expectation. And now, significant health care challenges are among the more salient forms of white on black discrimination. In the absence of sweeping governmental reforms that place human rights over property rights, African Americans must take greater ownership in their own health care by becoming better informed on effective ways to reduce stress—to the extent possible given the maintenance of systems of domination and oppression—to have an impact upon the quality of black life. Otherwise, these persistently elevated stress levels from chronic exposure to race-based discrimination have been shown to be physiologically and mentally bad for health and well-being, both at the individual and institutional levels of society. The result is epigenetic tags with harmful gene expressions.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith. This was originally posted at Huffington Post.